The man in black fled across the desert, and Jack watched him leave from atop a dune five klicks away.
He was fairly certain Gabriel had left for a significant chunk of time -- it was the first he’d left his hideyhole in more than two weeks with a rucksack slung over his back, the compound likewise silent and dark in his wake -- but Jack hadn’t stayed alive this long without learning the value of caution. He played it safe, and waited until the sun had gone down and the temperature dropped, until the glow of the distant Gates of Hell was a faint ruddy smear against the scrub, before he was satisfied Gabe wasn’t coming back anytime soon.
The vertebrae in his spine had quite specific complaints to lodge as he picked himself off the sand and stretched out the kinks in his back. He grimaced and winced as they popped one after the other, and the residual ache they left was enough to make him move cautiously as he bent again to fish his bag out of its sandy tomb. He was equally careful as he straightened again, brushing loose sand off the canvas, and glanced over his shoulder to ensure the nanomesh tarp camouflaging the tiny hoverplane he’d liberated from the former Blacksite Hanoi was still doing its job. It was, so he put his back to it and started the five-mile hike to the mostly-abandoned and mostly-decommissioned Ecopoint Karakum, looming dark against the night sky.
He made good time across the slightly uneven and darkened terrain, but it wasn’t quick enough to chase old ghosts out of his head, or the persistent thought that he really should have considered this would be the one and only place Gabriel would ever go to ground, given half a choice. He’d always been so fucking dramatic, and Ecopoint Hellgate suited his lord of death aesthetic right down to the deep, fiery pit of natural gas that supplied the energy powering the complex.
It had been over twenty years since Jack’d last been here, but credit to the contractors, Liao’s designs and the durability of the materials, it looked as fresh and new as the day they’d cut the ribbon and put it into service. He slipped through the gate, silent as a ghost, pausing only for the moment it took to snort softly at the weathered placard hanging from a chain over the fence, warning that the facility had been closed under the Petras Act and trespassers would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
He’d spent a significant chunk of his life cheerfully ignoring warning signs a lot more ominous than that sad pressed plate swaying in the wind. He wasn’t about to start paying attention to them now.
He slipped through the door and into the lobby, pausing there for the half a second it took his visor to adjust to the pitch black darkness within. He looked around, unsurprised to see that the place had been stripped of obvious valuables and tech, storage cupboards open and doors hanging off the hinges, empty of all supplies. He smirked to himself. Seemed like the sign hadn’t deterred looters either. Good on them.
Fortunately for him, Ecopoint Karakum had been designed like it was in fact powered by the mouth of hell, with multiple redundant safety features and panic systems hidden throughout the complex. Jack himself had approved the designs, signed off on the modifications Gabe had thoughtfully added to ensure maximum safety for Ecopoint personnel, and he didn’t know where the doors were. The chances of casual looters finding the hidden, command-code sealed doors to the military grade bunker below the complex were about as high as Jack’s chances of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Also fortunately for him, he had help.
He crossed swift and silent to a darkened comm terminal and tugged a glove off with his teeth, then laid his bare palm on the cool screen. Meg? You’re up.
Thank you, Jonathan, she said, warm and soft, and he felt his palm tingle as the screen below lit up with her icon, a wreath of flowers slowly rotating around a pomegranate. A breath later, lights glowed on the input panel beneath the screen, dim and blue, and code streamed behind Megaera’s sigil. Whatever would you do without me?
“Not have to answer to Jonathan,” he grumbled under his breath, pulling his glove back on as the panel went dark. The wall to the left rumbled soundlessly and slid aside with a soft clik , revealing the hidden elevator to the Ecopoint’s fallback bunker deep beneath the facility, and he stepped into it, thumbed the only, unmarked button it displayed. “Enjoy privacy when I take a leak. Or a shower. Or any other time, for that matter. Shall I go on?”
No, but that has never discouraged you from doing so. Her voice was amused. I am proud of you for doing this, Jonathan. No matter how it turns out in the end, at the very least you will have the comfort of knowing at long last you tried to fix it.
His jaw clenched as a ball of tight, hot unwanted feelings rose in his gorge and threatened to choke him up. He ignored it as best he could, just like he ignored Megaera’s silent amusement hovering around the back of his thoughts. It was impossible to pretend he wasn’t having a moment when he had someone else sharing his headspace, and so he didn’t even try.
The lift slowed to a stop, the door slid open again, and Jack stepped out into the habitation module. Uncharacteristic anxiety gnawed at his stomach, palms going damp and itchy inside his gloves, and he had to take a moment to compose himself, eyes closed and breathing slow and deep, before he could continue. Megaera, thank fuck, didn’t say a single word, but he could feel her being annoyingly supportive and compassionate, and that was bad enough.
Gabe had reduced power to bare minimum on his way out the door, but Megaera was kind enough to turn it back up as Jack set his rifle aside and raised both hands to pull the visor from his face. The entertainment area was neat as a pin, kept to Gabriel Reyes Standards. It eased a terrible knot in his chest to realize that, no matter what else had changed, Gabe hadn’t lost the anal retentive attention to detail that had simultaneously turned him on and aggravated the fuck out of him every day of their married life. Made him think that maybe, just maybe, enough had stayed the same.
A place for everything and everything in its place. How many times had he heard that over the years? The shitty thing about having an eidetic memory was that he knew exactly how many times he’d heard it, in exactly how many smug, indignant and playful tones, with exactly how many smiles or smirks or furrowed foreheads, and he knew how long it had been since he’d last heard it too.
Too damned long.
He shrugged out of his jacket and hung it neatly on the hook beside the door, dumped the clothes from his rucksack into the refresher off the kitchenette area, then stowed the rest of his gear in the first unoccupied room he found, which was right next to the first occupied room he found. He could not resist the draw of the bathing facilities, no matter how rationed water was supposed to be, and took no guilt whatsoever from having Megaera override the automatic shut off so he could luxuriate in the first hot shower he’d had in longer than he wanted to admit.
Not like the place was fully staffed anymore, after all.
He didn’t think he’d run the tanks even close to dry by the time he finally shut the water off and stepped out of the enclosure in a billow of steam, but he knew he’d put a satisfying dent in their stores, at least until the automated hydrox facilities reprocessed and replaced the contents. His clothes were restored to some semblance of cleanliness, and as he hauled on fresh pants and t-shirt, he felt somewhat human again.
It reminded him of how long it had been since the last time he felt human, no matter how hard he tried to forget.
He prowled through the rest of the in-use module, unsurprised at the meticulous tidiness and organization he found everywhere. He was likewise completely unsurprised to find the kitchen mostly disused and stocked full of silver packets of high-density protein and nutrient paste, refrigeration unit forlornly empty, and dishes, utensils and cooking equipment still in their protective vacuum sealed wrappings. Gabe never had been one for cooking and, given half a chance to avoid proper nutrition, would do just that.
“He still eats like a fucking hobo,” he muttered, shaking his head and gathering all the packets up to dump promptly into the recycler. “Meg, give me an inventory of available dehydrated supplies and assorted materials. You know what I’m looking for.”
Her icon bloomed on the kitchen terminal, spinning lazily. “The original manifests are available and do not log any usage of supplies. Would you like me to download the itemized list into your visor, or is a verbal recitation sufficient?”
He paused, eyed the icon rotating on the terminal with suspicion. “That was almost smartass of you, Meg.”
“I have been reviewing available data on how best to manage you from Gabriel’s personal logs and files,” she replied, and damned if he didn’t hear a smug note in her deceptively pleasant tones. “He has, officially, the highest rate of success for continuously managing and handling you. I believe he has taught me well.”
He growled an incomprehensible response under his breath and went back to his purge of the paste packets. “Never mind that. Just dump it in my head. I’ll sort it out from there. Any guess on when they’ll be back?”
“A brief review of the most recent communications and security footage suggests four days to a week,” Megaera said, and the images popped up on the screen behind her icon. “Too many supplies for shorter, too few for longer.”
He let himself have only a brief glance of the footage, and forced himself to turn away before he was mooning over surveillance video like a lovesick twelve-year-old. “Agreed. Plan for four days, and then go from there.”
“Very well, Jonathan,” Megaera said, and the larger appliances began humming to life as she powered them on one by one. “Adjusting time frame to four days and commencing Operation Homecoming in three, two, one. Commencing.”
Hades waited until they were twenty minutes out from Ecopoint Karakum, running dark and silent on approach in optimal stealth vectors, to casually murmur, We have guests.
“Guests?” Gabriel asked, aloud, because doing so was perfectly reasonable when no one else was around to witness it. “What kind of guests?”
It was, he supposed, pretty inevitable at this point. He reached for a holomonitor to pull up the Ecopoint’s internal security feed -- which frankly refused to deploy. He frowned, debated fiddling, but if Jesse or Hanzo -- or Jesse and Hanzo, which seemed far more likely, to say nothing of the rest of Jesse’s growing collection of recalled Blackwatch agents -- were planning a surprise welcome, then--
Gabriel, Hades said in that perfectly even, gentle, soothing tone he used when the shit had absolutely already hit the fan, everything was in the process of blowing up or burning down, and he was the only person who didn’t know about it yet. It is not Jesse. Or Hanzo.
“Then who --” He paused, breathed in peace, breathed out stress. “Jack and Ana.” They were close enough now to the ‘point that the internal monitors were definitely picking them up, stealth package or not -- there was enough fuel left in the tanks to make it to Blacksite Tashkent, but he’d be coasting in on the fumes…
The controls refused to respond as he tried to adjust their course.
“Hades,” Gabe asked from between clenched teeth, “what the fuck are you doing?”
It is not Jack and Ana. Again with that serenely soothing tone. Only Jack. And Megaera.
“God damn it, Hades.” He should, he also supposed, not be feeling this stupidly betrayed -- this was also pretty fucking inevitable, from the moment they discovered that Megaera’s containment vault was empty. “How long have you been working with her? With him? ”
Not as long as you’re thinking. Gently. You may be as angry as you wish --
“Why thank you .”
-- but you know as well as I that we cannot continue on as we are. And now a hint of implacable will, not precisely dissimilar to his own. I miss my wife, Gabriel. You miss your husband. And if anyone deserves to be there when we uncover the truth of what happened to all of us, it is them .
“Just because you’re right doesn’t mean I fucking like this.” Gabriel scrubbed his hands down his face and then took the necessary moment to reorganize it into something facelike, made a mental note not to do that around Jack, firmly resisted the urge to cackle a little hysterically. “I’d appreciate more than an hour’s warning before you decide to rearrange our collective life without my input.”
As you wish. The contrition in his tone was at least something. Not much, but something.
The vehicle occupying the Ecopoint’s second refueling berth was an older model of the two-passenger Blackwatch insertion vehicle he himself flew, probably boosted from the hangar of some “lost” Blacksite whose existence had never been official to begin with. Its engines were cold, suggesting its passenger wasn’t a fresh arrival, and Gabriel resisted with all his might the urge to think a number of scathing thoughts in Hades’ direction as he hooked up his own refueling lines and extracted his gear from the storage compartment.
An icon lit up on the panel beside the second berth, the wreath and pomegranate innocuously spinning like it hadn’t a care in the world. “Welcome home, Gabriel,” Megaera said, mellifluous and warm. “Jack wishes me to tell you that dinner will be in thirty minutes, but if you do not wish to join him, he will leave a tray outside your door.”
“... I’ll be there.” Gabriel managed, just barely, not to growl, punched in his own security access codes, and took the lift down to the hab module, thinking fixedly about nothing.
The scent that greeted him, as the doors opened, was the olfactory equivalent of a brisk punch to the face: it took him back to several places that he was fairly sure he’d never see again, his Abuelita Felicia’s kitchen on a Saturday afternoon, tucked into a corner with his cousins and his sisters with their own pan of cornbread and bowls, the little flat they’d rented together off base in Geneva for when they’d needed to be Gabe and Jack and not the Strike Commander and his shadow.
The second punch came as he turned the opposite direction from the commissary and entered the hab module personnel quarters. The room across the hall from his own was now occupied, said occupation announced by a post-it sticky bearing the legend Jack’s Dumpster. Gabe resisted, with all his might, the urge to let his twitching left eye turn into a full-blown facial tic. Especially since his own door was now tagged Gabe’s Brooding Lair of Broodery. He also resisted, successfully, the urge to pull it off, thumbing the door open instead, and came to a halt on the threshold.
Hanging above his bed was a framed photograph of sailboats on the deep blue waters of Lake Geneva, one that previously occupied a wall on a little flat thousands of miles away, which he had not seen the inside of in years. Flanking it, to either side, were two other photographs, which he glanced at briefly as he dumped his gear in the bottom of the closet and physically resisted the urge to dissociate into a violently emotional self-propelled nanocloud because how fucking dare he make him feel his own feelings, the asshole.
It took ten solid minutes to pull himself back together, because he didn’t resist all that well. Nor did he exactly walk down the hall to the hygiene suite, the door of which was also stickied: I just want to talk, babe. - J.
Gabe ghosted around the edges and concentrated on becoming solid enough to actually take a shower. It took way, way longer than it should have and his efforts were not helped by the sticky on the mirror: Seriously. I left my gun on the plane and everything. - J.
“God damn it, Jack.” His voice, even in his own ears, sounded like something only dubiously human, at best. “You’re fucking worse than Hades.”
But he did, eventually, manage to shower.
“It is good to see you again, Jack,” Hades murmured from the terminal where, his glance over showed, the screen now split between his and Megaera’s icons evenly. It was the first inkling Gabe was in the hab module with him and he should be thankful he had at least that much.
“Likewise,” he said, with a wry smile he felt more deeply than his face could ever show, and turned his attention to the oven, where a pan of cornbread muffins merrily baked according to the time and temperature burned into his memory by Abuelita Felicia decades ago. “Edgelord Barbie gonna grace me with his presence?”
“Gabriel is showering,” Hades said mildly, and Jack couldn’t tell one way or the other how Hades was feeling about the whole thing, but if Megaera’s high amusement was any judge, he was on solid footing. “He did tell my wife he intends to join you for dinner.”
Weapons optional. It hung in the silence, and Jack almost, almost regretted leaving his gun on the plane.
“Good enough,” he said, tried not to think of the way his palms went clammy or his stomach churned with anxiety. Megaera hung in the very rear of his thoughts, expectant and silent, and he rolled his eyes. “No, I don’t mind. In fact, get the fuck out of my head already. It’ll be a welcome vacation for both of us.”
“Thank you, Jonathan,” she said warmly, from the speakers this time, and he didn’t have the heart to correct her for the thousandth time that his name was Jack before her icon winked out, a hair ahead of Hades’, and her presence muted to a distant, fuzzy, barely-there buzz.
He was on his own for this. Finally, blessedly, terrifyingly alone.
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and concentrated on slowing his heart rate to something approaching normal biorhythms, then squared his shoulders and went on with setting the table and sideboard like it hadn’t been years since their last meal as a happily married couple. If Gabe asked him about the candles and the tablecloth and the origami rosebud in the thin-stemmed vase, he’d blame Megaera’s insidiously romantic influence and stick to that story on pain of torture or death.
He wasn’t sure what alerted him -- a scent in the air, distinctly Gabe , that brought back a rush of memories he wasn’t ready to face and that weakened his knees; a soft noise of clothes-and-skin; hell, maybe he was just supernaturally attuned to the living, breathing equivalent of his Kryptonite -- but he physically resisted the urge to hunch into a protective ball, to turn around and face said estranged husband, and forced himself to carry on mixing the apple-honey butter in its serving dish.
“Gonna stand there, or come help, pumpkin?” He kept his voice deliberately light, finally let himself turn to glance over his shoulder, controlled himself rigidly from collapsing into a violently emotional blubbering heap, and resolutely turned back to stirring the butter to perfection. “Table’s set, but you can get the muffin pan out of the oven before they turn into charcoal.”
Gabe’s sense of reality tilted ever-so-slightly sideways. The hab module kitchen was where he ate -- for values of “eating” that meant “slurping down a couple sleeves of tasteless, textureless nutrient paste because Hades periodically nagged him to do so for the sake of their combined biomass” -- but he had never cooked in it. Never saw the point of cooking only for himself, too much time and effort that could be better spent on other things, an unnecessary indulgence. He’d certainly never used a plate, only barely used a cup, never even considered unwrapping the cookware, and absolutely never set up a fully stocked spice rack, a coffee maker and an espresso maker, a six slice toaster, or a standing mug rack containing two mugs, standard issue and emblazoned with the Overwatch logo. Or decorative oven mitts and pot holders. Or herb planters with actual growing herbs in them.
It was in the grip of that insulating sense of unreality that he drifted away from the door and to the oven, catching up a set of pot holders on the way, and opened it to reveal a pan of perfectly browned cornbread muffins, which he extracted and deposited on the cooling rack, already sitting on the counter for that purpose. “Anything else I can help with?”
Beside him, Jack’s hand twitched as it tossed the dish towel over his shoulder, the abortion of an unconscious, affectionate gesture he’d displayed a thousand times in the past -- he’d physically stopped himself from reaching to slide his hand along the back of Gabe’s neck. “No,” he rumbled and wiped his hands on the seat of his pants. “Grab the iced tea out of the fridge and sit your ass down so I can feed you properly. You eat like a fucking undead raccoon, Gabriel.”
The world tilted slightly further, now on a solid thirty degree grade. “Says the man who, last time I checked, was squatting in an abandoned archaeological dig outside Cairo. And possibly eating out of dumpsters.” But he did retrieve the iced tea and settled himself in the chair that put his back closest to a wall.
Jack’s smirk was quick, but without hostility, and there was something almost unsettlingly friendly in his eyes as he brought the serving dish of what smelled exactly like Abuelita Felicia’s chili con carne to the sideboard. “Ana wouldn’t let me eat out of dumpsters,” he said, and ladled chili into the bowl in front of him, “no matter how nicely I asked her.”
“Well thank God for Ana.” Gabe replied dryly. “How’s she doing, by the way? The last time I saw her I’m afraid the conversation didn’t go too well.”
“In fairness,” Jack pointed out, serving himself up a bowl of chili and setting the dish aside to settle in his own chair, “you had just shot me in the back.” A beat, while he poured them both glasses of tea from the perspiration-beaded jug, slices of lemon and cubes of ice rattling against each other inside. “I left under less than ideal circumstances that absolutely did not involve me shooting her with her own rifle. I’m sure she’s awake by now. Probably not too thrilled with me, but I’m used to that after all these years.”
Gabe found the corners of his mouth twitching uncontrollably and only barely resisted a full-scale Reaper-cackle by sheer force of will. “Maybe not. The last time she hit me with that stuff, I woke up three days later. In the sewers. Of Cairo. In the summer. ”
Jack snorted, reached out with one of those unfairly long arms and snagged a couple of cooled muffins from the counter, politely holding one out to him. “I had to talk her out of dumping you into the Nile. Be thankful I managed to bring her around to the decommissioned parts of the sewers. It might have been much worse.”
“Mummified camel patties are not actually an improvement over Nile water, Jack.” Gabe spooned up a sample of the chili and it was only iron self-control that kept him from distending his jaw to inhuman extremes and swallowing the entire thing bowl and all in a single gulp; instead, he savored it like a real human boy.
Jack, as always, ate like someone was clocking him on how fast he could shovel food into his mouth, though he’d improved his decorum over the years and now didn’t spill nearly as much as he used to in the SEP commissary. “Crocodiles, babe. You’re forgetting the crocodiles.”
“I’m a nanobot abomination, Jack.” He smiled dryly and scrubbed the bottom of the bowl with a chunk of cornbread. “Crocodiles hold no terror for me.”
“That’s what Ana said,” Jack replied, graced him with a devastatingly bright, sparkle-eyed grin as he rose and collected their bowls for refilling. “And I told her to think of the poor crocodile trying to pass you through their colon.”
“... Okay, you have a point there. Far be it from me to disturb the digestion of some innocent creature.” Gabe took a deep, steadying breath and a fortifying sip of iced tea. “You know, Abuelita Felicia hated literally everyone I brought home, except you? That’s why you got all the secret family recipes. She didn’t even give me the secret family recipes.”
Jack’s grin dimmed, softened, went wistful and… regretful? “She’d have words for you and me both, I think,” he said quietly, setting Gabe’s bowl back in front of him, freshly topped off with chili, and plopped two muffins on the plate beside it. “Can’t even say she’d be wrong to have those words either. Or, really, if she felt like coming at us with that godawful wooden spoon of hers.”
Before he could begin to unfreeze his brain and process those words, Jack sat back down with his own refreshed bowl of chili, his own new plate of muffins, and smirked at him. “Save room, Gabe,” he said, digging into his second helping with relish. “There’s homemade mango sorbet for dessert.”
If Ma had taught him anything, it was how to keep his hands occupied and his mind busy when anxiety threatened to chew both to shreds of twitchy uselessness. She had wanted a big, raucous family full of girls and boys alike, but she and Mom had gotten only him, no matter how many IVFs they tried. Ma hadn’t been deterred a whit, though, and had made do with all the practical pragmatism for which she had been known. Mom had taken care of his school learning and homework, and Ma had taken care of everything else.
She’d taught him how to clean and cook, darn his socks and sew curtains from scratch, how to make candles by hand and how to bake, ice and decorate a three-layer wedding cake so perfectly no one would ever know it didn’t come out of a bakery. Crammed every salt-of-the-earth lesson she had to teach into his head, and then firmly rearranged them all until he had room for more.
Gods, he missed them both, but he didn’t think Mom would mind his slight and wistful preference for Ma. She’d had it too, after all.
Ma hadn’t taught him how to throw milk and ice and salt and sugar and cream and chunks of fruit together to make ice cream, but she’d laid the basics for him long before he took it into his head to try, and he idly wondered, as he’d wondered every waking minute of the last four days, if she’d approve of what he was doing in the sandy crack of the ass-end of nowhere. He scooped the sorbet into clean dessert bowls, paying probably greater attention than he absolutely had to show to each ball as it came off the ice cream spoon, and smiled wryly to himself, because he could hear her answer to that question as clearly as if she’d stood next to him and chided him directly into his ear.
Jonathan Morrison! I taught you far better than you’ve behaved! Pull your head from your backside and set things right, before it’s too late and that nice young man wises up to more respectful prospects.
He had the smile wrestled into submission by the time he turned around and put the bowl in the now-clear spot in front of Gabe, swallowed his trepidation and sat again, licking the stray smear of ice cream off his thumb as he did so. “So,” he started, and abruptly stopped, because he had no idea where to go from there. Tried again, with something nice and bland and hilariously understated. “You look like you have questions.”
Gabe, as Gabe was wont to do when preparing either a response or an evasion, did not immediately speak, taking his spoon for a turn around the outer edge of the bowl and sampling before he allowed a word to pass his lips. “Why are you here, Jack? This is fucking delicious, by the way.”
He couldn’t stop a pleased little smile from curving the corners of his mouth, and so he did not even try. He skimmed curls of sorbet off his own portion with careful and precise attention. “Why’d you break cover to save Shimada, Gabe? Also, thank you. First time I attempted it.”
Gabe slowly ate three more spoonfuls, his expression placidly blank, offering no read on the direction of his thoughts. When he finally spoke, his tone was planed perfectly even. “He’s Jesse’s husband, Jack. Our son’s husband. If you’d been in my position, what would you have done?”
He’d known what the answer was, all along, he just hadn’t dared hope to believe he’d hear it without a stream of blustering and justifications obscuring it, even after all this time. “Exactly the same thing, sweetheart,” he said gently, dared to reach across the table, slide his hand over Gabe’s for a brief, warm squeeze. “So here I am.”
Gabe’s hand went, he thought, pretty involuntarily misty and he reached up to rub his eyes in a way that suggested he really needed/wanted to cover his face for a moment. “That’s… not an answer.”
“Maybe not,” Jack said after a moment of thought and another spoonful or two of sorbet. “I owe you a straight answer I suppose.” He lingered over a third spoonful as he considered how to phrase things, before finally licking the back of his spoon and settling on, “I’ve decided to woo you.”
Gabe was completely still and silent for a moment. Then, in a slightly strangled tone: “ Woo me? Jack, have you been shot in the head recently?”
He grinned, sudden and fierce, and finished his sorbet. “Funny you should mention that, Gabriel,” he said, couldn’t help the zest or the relish, and he had to privately admit that maybe he was enjoying this just a little bit too much. “Because I actually was shot in the head about, oh, seven years ago, after which I woke up with Megaera in my thoughts and two Hellfire shells digging into my skull. You know, conclusion-jumping asshole that I am, it only occurred to me just recently that maybe it hadn’t been you. That being the case, I figure I’ve got a lot of time and bullets to apologize for. So yes. I’m wooing you. Any objections I should note?”
Gabe opened his mouth to respond to that, clearly thought the better of it, and closed it again, his expression a complex welter of emotions that, after a moment, ceased to be clearly recognizable as a face, blurring into something masklike as his entire body went more than a little misty around the edges. “You,” he finally rasped, through a couple thousand nanomachine voices, “are -- are -- I don’t even know what you are right now. Insane? Does insane work for you?”
“No one’s ever accused me of being of sound and rational mind where you’re concerned,” he felt obliged to point out, and didn’t try to halt the shit-eating grin he could feel stretching across his face. “You’ve rarely complained, though. Well. Rarely seriously complained. Question is, are you gonna start bitching about my sanity now?”
“Jack… I am a literal nanomachine abomination. ” It sounded like he was desperately attempting to talk sense to someone, himself possibly included.
“Everyone’s got problems, Gabe. Pretty sure that’s why they have that ‘for better or for worse, in sickness and health’ clause in wedding vows.”
A ragged multi-voiced sigh. “You’re serious.”
The corner of his mouth twitched into a wry, lopsided grin. He’d take to his grave how cute he was finding Gabe’s reaction to this, if only because if he didn’t, his grave would find him much, much sooner than he hoped it would. “If you were hoping for a nice, overdue psychotic break, sorry. I’m really real. And yes, I’m serious.”
“Five years of fucking shooting at each other and now you decide that we should get marriage counseling.” It sounded halfway between hysterical cackling laughter and despair.
He cleared his throat, resisted the urge to wipe his eyes, because if he did, he wasn’t going to stop until he was bawling like a baby. “Five years of fucking shooting at each other, and finally you don’t deny that there’s still something here worth saving.”
“I never thought there wasn’t.” Gabe’s voice wavered. “I was afraid there wasn’t -- that you weren’t you any longer, no matter how much you acted it. And, when I realized I was wrong… I thought it was too late to matter.”
Jack stared at him for a long, blank moment, letting the words filter through his brain. He opened his mouth to ask with some intensity of heat exactly what Gabe meant, but snapped his mouth shut again because he knew damned well what Gabe meant. Amelie LaCroix, slitting Gerard’s throat in their sunny apartment. Ops, blown left and right. Geneva, and whatever lay behind his fuzzy memories. Instead of saying any of that, he cleared his throat. It took him three tries to dislodge all the balls of emotion that choked him. “Gabriel. You fucking idiot.” Gently, he held out a hand. “Come here.”
Gabe hesitated, flickered, nearly vibrated visibly with the effort needed to pull himself physically back together. The hand that came to rest in his own was warm and solid and realistically callused, sent something close to a low-intensity electric charge dancing across the surface of the skin where they met.
Jack smiled faintly, debated for a moment, then pulled him up and into a tight squeeze that only slightly made his arms tremble. “You’re getting wooed, dumbass,” he said gruffly, because it was gruffness or weepiness, and rested his chin on top of Gabe’s shoulder. “Last chance to protest.”
“You shot Ana for me,” Gabe murmured against his shoulder. “I’m not going to send that level of devotion packing.”
“Good thing too,” he said, laughter rumbling in his chest, and let himself relax just a little bit. He couldn’t resist closing his eyes and stealthily inhaling the warmth from Gabe’s neck, and he didn’t bother trying either. “Ana’s cranky when she gets too much sleep.”
Gabriel was not, point in fact, entirely convinced he wasn’t having an amazingly realistic and tactile psychotic break from reality -- he had one before, shortly after his initial union with Hades, and if Hades hadn’t been able to pilot their joint body without his assistance it likely would have been his last. This had the same feel to it, the same mistily soft-focus gloss of reality too good to be true, even the same participants, albeit with different details. Seven years ago, it had been because he was dying and his brain knew it even if his body didn’t, granting him a last merciful illusion to check out on rather than the cold knowledge that it was his husband who’d planned and executed the circumstances of his murder.
Now he wasn’t sure but he could guess about the trigger and quietly cursed himself for the cleverness of making sure their wedding rings made their way into Jesse’s hands.
Jack, or the illusion thereof, was nearly perfect in attentive gruffness, sliding back into the void he’d left in Gabe’s life as though he had never left it in the first place, bringing scented candles and home cooked meals and the kind of fondly exasperated affection Gabe had regretfully resigned himself to never experiencing again. Not even Hades’ quiet reassurances could fully convince him he wasn’t hallucinating his estranged husband’s renewed presence, because five years of shooting at each other following five years of estrangement and tension and more than half-true actual death experiences couldn’t fucking resolve themselves as easily as this.
The noise Jack made on the third day of their maybe-real-maybe-not cohabitation, on the other hand, brought Gabe’s concerns of delusional breaks with reality to a screeching halt. He might hallucinate Jack watching a telenovela on the couch. He might even hallucinate Jack drifting off in the middle of award-winning melodramatic deliveries of routine lines. In no psychotic break, on no earth, in no reality, however, would he ever hallucinate Jack making that quietly strangled single whimper of primal terror that brought to mind the screams from waking up on the slab, that made him remember the times when Jack’s strength and self-assurance was broken and shivering against him, huddled for comfort and safety like a terrified child in the dead of night.
“Jack?” His throat was dry and he winced a little at the raspy not-human metallic edge to it. “Jack, wake up. ”
Jack’s forehead furrowed and his shoulders tensed, but the rapid movement of his eyes under his closed lids didn’t change.
Gabriel breathed deep and considered his options. They had, thus far, avoided anything more than casual, fleeting physical contact -- after that first night, it was all brushes of hands in passing and dancing around one another in the hygiene module and most definitely sleeping in separate rooms. Gabe locked his door, and he suspected Jack did the same, or at least he hoped he did. They could and did sit comfortably together in the same room, even on the same piece of furniture but even now there was at least an arm’s length of space between them -- minimal maneuvering room for Jack, more than enough for someone who could literally turn into a nanite cloud at will. Maybe he could ask Hades to ask Megaera to do something?
I will not, Hades surfaced long enough to primly inform him, and she will not. And then he was gone again.
Thank you both, ever so much. Gabriel growled in reply and reached over to rest a hand lightly on Jack’s shoulder. “Jack. It’s okay. Wake up.”
The tension beneath his fingers was almost inhuman, but a moment after his hand settled there, it began to drain away. A moment later, Jack blinked awake, his expression as hollow and empty, pale and drawn, as it had been the very first time they’d done this all those years ago. Another blink, and he focused abruptly on Gabe’s face. “Gabriel.”
It didn’t sound like question, more like someone establishing baseline facts of his location and situation.
“Yes. I’m here, Sunshine.” It rolled off his tongue before he could stop it. “You know where you are?”
“In hell.” The smile that followed that statement was faint and wry, but a hundred percent Jack. He hesitated for a moment, then leaned into Gabe’s touch more obviously, trapped the hand between his cheek and shoulder and let his eyes close again. “Never thought I’d hear that pet name again, mi amor, ” he murmured.
Don’t say that. He managed to bite down on that before it left his mouth. “Admittedly, I tend to agree that Hell is other people, hence living alone in the ass end of nowhere.” He leaned in closer before the sane parts of his mind could make him stop. “Bad one?”
“Yes.” Flat. Bleak. But then he sighed softly and more tension drained away, as if he was reacting to the shrinking distance between them. “Remember the SEP field trip to Newark when they wanted to test our response times?”
“Oh fuck yes.” When had he moved right up against Jack’s side? He couldn’t actually remember doing it, which was probably something that should worry him more than it was. “I’m pretty sure I still have a Pavlovian twitch from the fucking start cue they used.”
“First time you died,” Jack said softly, and at some point, some point when Gabe hadn’t been paying attention, he had started collapsing forward, until his forehead leaned against Gabe’s throat and all that broad, solid warmth folded into him like it always had. He swallowed audibly. “That I witnessed start to finish, anyway. Always was a fucking highlighted feature in my nightmares.”
“Fortunately, I don’t remember a whole lot of that part. I suspect brain damage.” All that broad, solid warmth felt as good as it ever did, especially with his arms wrapped around it. “Still here, despite the best efforts of the world to the contrary.”
Jack’s laugh was husky, rusty with mild disuse, and utterly without rancor or sarcasm. “Too stubborn to stay dead. One of the many reasons I fell in love with you.”
“Still always finding the bright side.” He found a smile lurking at the corners of his mouth and let it stay. “The first reason I fell in love with you. Well. Okay. Maybe not the first. But definitely in the top ten.”
Jack was silent for a long moment after that, seemingly content to lean and be held, heart rate slowing and breathing growing less ragged. Then, softly: “Haven’t had a good night’s sleep in close to ten years, Gabriel. I miss you, more than I think I can keep pretending I can bear.”
“... I’ve missed you, too.” It took him a moment to wrestle his voice back under control. “I’ve missed this. I’ve missed us and I’ve missed our family. I want it all back.”
Jack’s breath caught. “Good,” he said roughly, approximately three milliseconds before his hand curled around Gabe’s cheek and his head rose from Gabe’s shoulder. “Me too,” he murmured, and kissed him.
Gabriel chose, at that instant, to blame some sort of deep and undiagnosed nano-malfunction for the complete seizure of his brain and the decision of his hands and arms and mouth to pull Jack closer, sink hands into his hair, part his lips with an unmistakable invitation. Permanent, incurable, and completely enabling in every helpful way and laid a secondary plan to blame Hades if that didn’t work at some point in the future.
Jack made another noise, one definitely not indicating any sort of traumatic distress, and hauled Gabe into his lap for more accessible plundering of his mouth, adding in a thorough manhandling of every surface his hands could skim across. And then he broke off, panting ragged and harsh, pulled him tight against his chest and dusted featherlight kisses across his jaw. “Fuck,” he rasped, raw and thick, shuddered once, violently. “I never stopped loving you, you know. Might have gone a bit crazy when I thought you’d killed me, but I never stopped.”
“Someone wanted us both to think that, you know.” He pressed kisses to Jack’s eyelids, his cheeks, the corners of his mouth. “So even if we somehow survived, it would still be there, pushing us apart. God, I love you. My sun and moon. It’s been so… dark without you.”
Jack’s mouth slid over his again, firm and sure. “Been cold without you,” he murmured against Gabe’s lips, hands roaming up his back. “I’m so goddamn tired of not having you in my life. Take me back, and I’ll never leave you again.”
“You didn’t leave me in the first place.” Gabriel caught his face, pressed their foreheads together. “You’re not to blame here, Jack. You know that, right?”
“No,” he said on an exhale, brushed fingertips and knuckles gently over his cheekbones. “And neither do you, because we don’t know what the fuck happened. I thought -- it doesn’t matter what I thought, not now. I hate what I am without you, mi amor. I don’t know if that’s a product of being apart, or the reason we were forced apart.”
“We were always better together. That’s an immutable fact of the universe.” His concentration fractured and he felt himself trying to go to millions of misty pieces under Jack’s fingertips. “That I know as much as I’ve ever known anything.”
Jack’s smile curved slow, bright, devastating. “Yeah,” he said. “We always are better together. We--” He broke off to clear his throat, noisy and clearly emotional, the sap. “I found a modified combat simulator in one of the other rooms. Never did take you to Madrid for our ten year. Think we were dealing with some crisis or another. Wanna go now?”
“You spent however long it was waiting for me playing Suzy Homemaker and building an elaborate holo-simulation of Madrid just in case we didn’t kill each other on sight, didn’t you?” Gabriel asked and had to physically resist the attempt of his smile to split his face. “Yes. Yes, I would very much like to go.”
“You always got bitchy when I watched telenovelas without you,” Jack said mildly, and it was gratifying to see the color of those terribly washed-out eyes flood back to lively, sparkling blue. “The fuck else was I supposed to do for four days except make curtains and hang pictures and build you a holographic Madrid?”
“You have a point.” Gabriel flowed to his feet, literally, reformed, offered his hand.
If he’d expected Jack to recoil at the display of his inhumanity, it would have been then. But Jack didn’t hesitate, just grinned and took Gabe’s hand, let Gabe haul him to his feet, and then draped his arm over Gabe’s shoulders. “I may have added some stuff you can shoot at,” he said, and indulged them both with a brief, affectionate nuzzle of his cheek. “I know how you prefer working vacations.”
Gabe released a shaky breath and grinned back. “Best. Husband. Ever. ”
Little by little, they put themselves back together.
It wasn’t the same, would never be the same, but Jack discovered he didn’t really care about that so much. “Different” didn’t mean “worse” by default, and he was okay with them being different than they had been. “Different” meant more work, rebuilding shattered trust and finding new footing within the context of the relationship they were redefining on the fly, but Jack didn’t mind all that so much either. He’d never been one to shy away from hard work. He’d always found it the most rewarding kind of work to do.
He took Gabe to holo-Madrid, complete with the various representative SEP doctors and technicians that had once comprised their therapeutic combat simulations programmed to jump out at them at various intervals as they walked along the boulevards and through the Buen Retiro. When they got tired of killing SEP personnel in Madrid, he reset the sim matrix for Paris, then Geneva.
He cooked every meal from scratch, made efforts to talk more than he quite frankly wanted to do -- he was an old dog, and learning how to talk more was definitely a new trick, but he loved Gabe, so he fucking tried like hell. He wasn’t always successful, not even half of the time, but he figured Gabe had noticed the sheer pigheaded effort he was putting into fixing their marriage, because Gabe basked in it, rolled around in it. Gabe melted like a fucking popsicle and never found the opportunity to freeze up again.
Melted-popsicle Gabe was still not devoid-of-issues Gabe, the largest of which was the whole literal nanobot abomination thing for which he couldn’t really be blamed. A sort of dysphoria , Megs opined, with triggers galore getting a workout from close cohabitation with another human being for the first time in what was probably ages. Even without, it clearly took him considerable effort to hold on to a coherent physical form some days, to rebuild it on those occasions when he couldn’t keep a grip, the pain showing around his eyes and mouth even if he didn’t talk about it out loud.
Then came the day when Jack exited the hygiene module to find Gabe a roiling, agitated nanocloud forming and falling out of a vaguely humanoid shape with increasingly shaky frequency. He stood in the mouth of the corridor for a moment, blinking, and then kept moving forward. “Gabe?”
The noise that came out of him could not be mistaken for a coherent attempt at speech by even the most liberal definition of the term and that seemed to make the agitation, if anything, a couple thousand orders of magnitude worse. It also seemed to induce him to move , backing away for values of backing that meant flowing like something lying in the visually disturbing border between gaseous and liquid states.
Jack sighed through his nose, that particularly exasperated tone that had preceded so many of their married life fights, the one he used when he’d had just about enough of Gabe’s melodramatics, and settled on the floor, cross-legged, one hand outstretched. “Gabriel, don’t do that. Come here, mi amor, and let me see if I can fucking help?”
His shape shimmered, flickered, almost solidified, fell apart again. Hurts. It came out in the form of a thousand barely coordinated whisper-soft voices. Nothing helps.
“You haven’t tried everything,” Jack said, patiently, arm still outstretched and palm still upturned to him. Meg, you got my back on this, right?
Yes. Hades will help.
Good. “C’mon, babe. Let me try.”
A tendril of nanomist extruded itself from the cloud, almost armlike, almost handlike, and rested over his upturned palm.
Smoothly, so smoothly he almost didn’t notice when they started, Megs and Hades connected to each other and drew him through that connection to a level of awareness of Gabriel he had only ever prior experienced as awareness of himself. He had to stop himself from flinching, from whimpering, as phantom pain lashed across his synapses; if he showed any sign otherwise, he knew Gabe would withdraw at once and then this level of sharing, of trust, would never happen again.
I’m here, sweetheart. Tell me what to do.
So hard to remember. He sounded as purely and perfectly exhausted as he ever had during the Crisis, when he would go days without sleeping while his SEP-enhanced brain absorbed raw intelligence feeds and churned out tactical improvisation on the fly across battlefields spread all over the planet. What I look like. So stupid.
It’s not stupid. It’s human. And you’ve had other priorities. Even as he spoke, Jack thought of all the different faces Gabe had shown him over the years. How he’d looked the first time Jack had seen him, stalking into the group therapy room like he had a grudge against the world. The first time he’d kissed him, how he’d felt naked and glorious and underneath, on top of, beside, with him.
Thought of the bad times, when Abuelita Felicia died, how he’d cried. How they both had cried. How they stood together, each other’s strength, hand in hand at the funeral. How Gabe looked in the middle of a fight, all flashing anger and stubborn pride.
How he looked asleep, how he’d looked unable to sleep. Sitting beside Lena’s biobed. Jesse’s biobed. How he’d run himself into the ground trying to deal with every Crisis orphan they had rescued from various legal and social troubles. How he’d picked himself up and been there for Jack when his Ma’s body had finally been found.
He had so many faces, and Jack loved them all. How the hell was he supposed to pick just one?
“Don’t have to.” Rough and gravelly and tired.
Without opening his eyes, Jack reached out and pulled Gabe into him, pressed a kiss unerringly on his cheekbone, just under his eye, and settled them on the couch with some maneuvering and some not so stealthy superhuman strength and flexibility, pulled the throw on the back of the couch over them both. “You don’t have to do this alone anymore. Not unless you want to. You know that, right?”
“I know.” A gust of warm breath across his throat, his collarbone. “Is it stupid, not wanting them to see...this?”
“No,” Jack rumbled, opened his eyes and looked down at him finally, nestled comfortably together. Brushed his thumb across Gabe’s cheekbone, where he’d laid the kiss. “No, it’s not stupid. I can shut my eyes again, if you want.”
“You don’t have t’do that. It’s not like it’d change anything at this juncture.” The corners of his mouth trembled for a moment, settled into an expressionless line.
Jack settled his arm more comfortably under his head, curled the other just a bit tighter around Gabe’s frame. “I’ve never cared what you look like, you know,” he said, leaning his cheek against the crown of his head. “I love you, and however you’re shaped will always be Gabe-shaped to me.”
“Sap.” His throat worked and he closed his eyes, the forty-car pile-up of emotions on his face expressing themselves in a manner accurately described as ‘verifiably human.’ “It gets bad sometimes. Worse than that. Tries defaulting back to...considerably less pretty states unless Hades and I override it.”
“Let go if you need,” Jack said, no hesitation. None needed. “If it hurts to look like this, look like something else that doesn’t. If you need help remembering how to look, I’m here. May as well be useful for something.” A pause, and he shifted his head just enough to meet Gabe’s eye briefly, smiled lopsidedly at him. “Dumbass,” he murmured, and pressed a kiss to his nose.
“This isn’t bad.” The world’s briefest smile, there and gone again. “I know you’re not going to bail on me because I sometimes look like smoldering corpse. That’s still not the sort of thing I’m going to ask you to snuggle. ”
Jack shrugged, closed his eyes again, and smiled against the curve of Gabe’s forehead. “Your call, pumpkin. I’m more concerned for your mental health than my own.” A soft sigh made its way out of his nose, a quiet huff of amusement. “You don’t want me to snuggle corpse-Gabe, I won’t. You do, I’m game to try. You’re not comfortable sleeping together, okay. I’ll just take a couple more showers a week. This goes at a pace we’re both comfortable with, or not at all.” He cracked open an eye, peered down. “That’s the deal.”
Gabriel reached up and stroked his cheek. “You’re better than I deserve, old man.”
“I know,” he said, couldn’t stop himself from verbalizing the cheeky smirk, and gave into the urge to nuzzle Gabe’s throat in return. “And here I am anyway.”